Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Squeak Carnwath : Reflections on Painting and the Role of the Artist

by Richard Whittaker , Jul 25, 2015



My first interview with artist Squeak Carnwath was an important moment for me. In 1992 I hadn't interviewed an artist of her standing before, but beyond that, the interview itself was exceptionally rich. Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most read on the site.

Nine years later, a second interview was done, this time for a catalog accompanying an exhibit of her paintings at the Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. Somehow I set it aside and only now found myself rereading it. How could I have let this second treasure remain hidden?

On that second occasion, we met at Carnwath's studio in Oakland and soon were talking about her close friend, artist Viola Frey, who I’d interviewed and written about a few months earlier. I’d just mentioned that I thought most of the writing I’d seen about Viola was pretty weak…

Squeak Carnwath:  There are really a lot of puff-press pieces. No one really tries to determine what they’re seeing for themselves. Lately with Viola’s work Mark van Proyen has been more introspective. His pieces have been short, but they’ve been more interesting.

Richard Whittaker:  Do you care to say more about writing in the artworld?

Squeak:  I used to read more. There are a couple of people I really like. I like Michael Freed, but he doesn’t write much about contemporary art. I like writing from the 30s more than contemporary work. There’s so much deeply dysfunctional work today, work that treads on a weird kind of taboo line, an internal shadow side. People talk about some of that work in the most glib way.

RW:  As I was struggling to write about Viola’s work it occurred to me that it’s almost impossible to write about some things today. I found that most of the language I would try to use simply wasn’t able to carry the content. Since you use language in your paintings I wonder if you think much about language.

Squeak:  Do you think the language has been corrupted?

RW:  Some of it, yes.

Squeak:  But what language? If one writes or talks simply in really direct prose, I don’t think it’s as corruptible. I like to keep it as clear and as direct as possible.

Language is used now much more in a commercial way, really. It’s used to sell something so it has to have a sexy sound. I was reading yesterday—and I’ve heard this term before—that you don’t film something now, you “capture the image” because afterwards, you’re going to do something else with it.

You can change it, especially with digital technology, and that just sounds much cooler than “taking pictures.” It either gets cosmetically cleaned up or made more palatable, less edgy.

And I think a lot of things are that way now. I think we live in this karaoke culture. [laughs] Like in a yearbook. You know how if you look in a yearbook everyone looks the same. Somehow they’ve had the same photographer since yearbooks were invented. It’s the same headshot that’s a little awkward, but everyone is sort of universally mediocre. No one really stands out. Every one has the same kind of countenance.

After they get out of the yearbook, after high school, there a karaoke thing where people don’t have to be really good at anything anymore. They can be dilettantes— They can sing, they can dance… It’s weird.

RW:  I agree, so where do you place yourself in relation to what you’ve just described?

Squeak:  I’m trying to be good at painting. I was thinking about this. A lot of artists are using more photo-based images or photo-based processes to make paintings or to make artwork. Photography is everywhere. I really want to make stuff that comes from the hand. So I want to get better at that.

I was thinking about that, wondering about how it will be when everything really gets inundated with this kind of sameness of depth. If everything goes digital and we’re able to put everything on a chip, it’s all going to have the same kind of depth, or resonance, and we’re going to need to have something that your eyes can dig a hole into. Even though it might seem unfashionable, I’m interested in developing my own sense of material expertise—a sensitivity to the material and how the material can telegraph my feelings.

RW:  This takes us to your own work and I wondered if there were things you might want to say directly about your current work.

Squeak:  No. Because I’m in kind of a mute state and I’m behind schedule. I’m doing these paintings I think of as “happy paintings” and I thought that if I said that, then I’d have to talk about it. But I’m not really sure I want to because talking too much is like doing the paintings.

RW:  And that’s an interesting subject, that there’s something that needs to be protected.

Squeak:  Yes.

RW:  That’s interesting because whatever it is that needs to be protected is in the area where the painting wants to exist.

Squeak:  Right. And if it’s going to happen it needs to have this space, whether it’s sacred, or whether it comes out of solitude. It’s necessary to find the ability to be with one’s own thoughts in an unmediated kind of space. Yes. It needs to be protected because otherwise it doesn’t happen.

RW:  Maybe you’d be willing to say you have a clear sense that there is something that needs to be protected.

Squeak:  Yes.

RW:  Would you say you know something about when you’re crossing into it?

Squeak:  Yes. I do. And as I get older I get less interested in talking about it and I’m talking less in my teaching, too. What I think of is that there’s a deepening that goes on more and more as one practices something—and simultaneously I understand it less and less, in a way. So there’s less to say even though you’re deeper into it.

RW:  Would you also say that part of this process involves something moving out of the head and down into some other parts?

Squeak:  Oh, absolutely! Because I know less of what I’m working on now than I did years ago. In graduate school and shortly afterwards I would have a much clearer idea. There would be zones of unknown territory—like maybe what a color would be—but the parts I liked the best were the parts where I was afraid or where I didn’t know what I was doing. Now that’s how it all is. That’s the zone I’m in when I work.

It’s hard for me even to say exactly what the paintings are about. There are subtexts, which are the real texts, and then there are things like the story line, the thing you thought you saw, but it wasn’t the real information. Now it seems like I’m working in a subterranean place, or in a mine, and when I’m in the middle of a group of paintings it’s hard to know where it’s going. And also the groupings sort of bleed one into the other so they’re not so defined. It’s easier to talk about all this in retrospect, although it’s getting less easy.

RW:  I wanted to ask about this. It’s hard to find the right way to ask, but let’s say there are at least two levels. One of them could be called a search. You face the canvas and you start to paint, make lines, put in some color—there’s a search going on, wouldn’t you agree?

Squeak:  Yes. Right. Because it’s not “picture making.” If you think of Lucien Freud, people who paint things they are looking at—artists who are “realists,”—really, that subject matter is just a way in. It’s a way to get into the landscape where the search really occurs. That’s why some people’s portraits or paintings of recognizable objects are so compelling. It’s so seamless the way they look at something and search for something else outside of what they are looking at.

RW:  I was thinking how hard it is to find the right words for describing what it is that happens on the canvas. It’s a space where something begins to appear.

Squeak:  Right. It reveals itself to you. Or it reveals the maker to him or herself. It’s an insight process. A process of acquiring insight or being able to make observations either literally or based in sensation—observations about being in the world, about being alive, being in that space between arriving and leaving and how you deal with that, how you reconcile that in the short amount of time we have here and how we spend it.

For me the painting allows that to happen. The sensation of color, of texture, of marks drawn, imagery or not—I don’t even have a word for it. It’s just like tasting something. Like tasting wine. You know how people talk about really great wines. I’ve had one, once. Once! And it was just a little teeny sip. It was amazing wine. It was like sex, I guess. It was there and then it was gone! Your whole body gets involved in it and you recognize it, but it’s very fleeting.

RW:  We really don’t have language for this, it seems.

Squeak:  None, or very little.

RW:  It was just a moment, and yet it’s still there somehow, right?

Carnwath:  Yes. It stays with us forever.

RW:  There’s something really extraordinary about that. It points to a world that is so different from the one I live in ordinarily, and also how I generally think about things...

Squeak:  We think in a way that helps us navigate the things that keep us alive, but they aren’t the things that keep us nourished. What amazed me about the taste of this wine was that… You know, there are all these poems about the nectar of the Gods, the specialness of wine when it was first made, and then you realize it can still be that! That still exists! It happens, and then it’s gone. Painting is like that.

RW:  I’m interested in something you said in an earlier conversation, that something can happen in this process of painting that can help reconcile ourselves to being here in this life for only a limited time.

Squeak:  Right. And we don’t really know how long that is. We know we have birthdays, and that there are years, but really we don’t know, in the scope of things, whether this is a second or hundreds of years. There’s no parallel thing that allows us to compare. Although apparently there are parallel realities. Did you know that? Someone in Berkeley discovered this. I call it “The Prosciutto Theory.” [laughs]

RW:  String theory and all that, I guess. I wanted to come back to painting as a complex activity.

Squeak:  I think it’s more complex than sculpture. Scupltors will hate me for saying this. Painting doesn’t displace our space, and it’s a kind of arena where we, as viewers, grant it a kind of reality as if the painting were a “real thing,” or a “real place.” It’s not. Often it’s not even a depiction of it.

It’s an activity that occurs between the painter and the paint and the surface. It’s just this thin film of stuff only millimeters thick, really thin—but it’s really deep—which is what I love about it. It’s something that appears real, but if you were to take it apart, deconstruct it, you find it’s just this little layer of dirt, of pigment.

RW:  And then, when the painting is done, it’s meant to be seen—meant to go out and meet the world as a “real” thing. I’m wondering about this part of it. It goes out to say something. In a way, painting is a form of speech.

Squeak:  Yes, or a form of address—a non-verbal form of speech—although I use words in my paintings. Partly, using the words is a form of shorthand, and also a way toward intimacy, depending on what is written. If I want to have a house in a painting, I can just write the word “house.” You’ll know what it is, and using the word doesn’t limit the idea of “house.” It will be “all houses” instead of a particular house. And also that way it’s not just “my house,” but the beholder’s house. The sign for house, which is the word, is owned by anybody reading it. I like to use language so the form of address is not limited to my voice, really.

I think the reason we continue to go back and look at the same paintings over and over again is because the painters relinquished their own particular identities. There’s an identity in the painting style and paint handling and in the materials used, and that’s like a fingerprint. But it’s not the first thing the viewer gets hit with. What they recognize is themselves. I think that’s what happens.

So it’s this form of address, but it’s as if we hear our own voices. And it’s not “mirroring.” A lot of people like to say, “Well, art mirrors our culture and our society, blah, blah.” That’s an inadequate understanding. Mirroring is just mirroring. It’s not about paying attention. It simply points at what is already there. What may not be so obvious, what may lie underneath and hidden, will take the experience of looking to recognize.

RW:  In your painting Trying Simply To Be Happy [2000], you’ve written on the canvas “the ozone hole in the atmosphere is now three times as big as the United States.” I remember another of your paintings, Twenty Two Minutes [1995[, in which you wrote “each week Americans spend 12 hours watching TV and 22 minutes on love.” It’s clear that certain things concern you about the world, and the culture that we’re in. Would you say something about that?

Squeak:  Some of the things that get put in the paintings are concerns like about how we’re spending our time. Look at what we’re doing. We spend our time occupying our place as if it will go on forever, but we’re not taking care of anything. And that not-taking-care-of the planet, or the quiet sides of our lives either, is indicative of how we, as individuals, don’t take care of our internal life.

In a way, it gets back to the question of what needs to be protected. I think everybody needs to protect themselves. I don’t know whether it’s the deeper self, the “true” self— I’m not sure what it is, but people need to protect something inside so they can have a solitude of being with themselves. Just being in the moment—something along those lines.

Everything is always a big drama. People are always just running around, doing all these things. No one takes this moment, which painting does. Artists get to spend hours and days just being attentive.

RW:  This aspect of making art which can be nurturing, which can bring us closer to ourselves—what does the artworld do with that, if anything?

Squeak:  Nothing. Because the artworld is getting closer and closer to everything else. It’s kind of foresaking that in some way. There’s the sociology kind of art where the artist goes and works with executives and tries to get them to make things out of their paper-clips. The artist makes an artwork out of them, and so corporate America has a slightly entertaining moment. And maybe the people working in the office start to be a little more introspective.

But in a lot of these projects, like where an artist goes into a school system and does a project, the artist will feel they’ve done something good for the world, but there is no follow-up. I think such problems need something transformative, a deeper part of art rather than just being “a poster child” for these ills.

RW:  The whole idea that a sort of aggressive, didactic statement in a museum is somehow automatically therapeutic—I find that a dubious proposition.

Squeak:  It’s also preaching to the converted, people who already know about this, who may be spending their spare hours doing charitable works that might make some difference.

Most people think art is meant to be beautiful or to do this or that. That’s why the Impressionists are so popular. People without an art-history education recognized a coming together of skill and vision. When art mocks the viewer—unless the viewer happens to be extremely well-educated in a very narrow zone of art-history—that just seems kind of cruel in some way.

My kind of work may appear just to be retro and just about beauty and therefore superficial, but I think our job is to do something good for humanity and for ourselves and other people. Not just make them feel guilty. We have enough of that.

RW:  That must be the most difficult goal in today’s artworld, and in our culture. That is, to find a way to speak with real force for a good that’s accessible and is humanly understood. It’s not so easy.

Squeak:  I still believe it’s crucially important. But there’s the question: How can a contemporary artist make beautiful work when it’s already been done? How do you re-contextualize it?

RW:  I was in Los Angeles recently and met a couple of artists. We were just talking in general about the art scene. One of them, a very bright guy, a painter, said that a lot of the time when he went to exhibits a thought kept coming up: “something has gone terribly wrong in the artworld.” I can’t help thinking of Joseph Beuys in this context who said some pertinent things on the subject.

Squeak:  Paul McCarthy is talking about this in some ways. He teaches at UCLA. He does things with food and mustard and ketchup. He takes animated figures from Disney and has them doing really horrible, base things on these stage sets evocative of childhood settings, in a sort of pubescent, teen-age boy mind-set. In a way, his work is acting in the space between what kids were shown on television as the perfect life vs. what really happened. There’s this overlay about what psychology has let us know about ourselves, and this rampant violence in the world.

I think there are people working in that vein, but no one is really talking about all those kinds of aspects of the work. They talk about it a little, but not that much. I even think there’s room for that kind of work. In some ways it’s probably a more masculine way of dealing with the world.

I don’t think everything should be pretty landscape paintings. We have to live in the time we live in and deal with that in some way. I do think there is something wrong. But just because there is so much wrong it doesn’t give license to people who want to go backwards.

RW:  How does one regard egotism in this whole discussion?

Squeak:  It comes in. Artists are wildly egotistical or have a sense of self-importance. But on the other hand they’re incredibly insecure. They straddle the two things every day.

RW:  How does an artist act in an environment in which these sorts of things—beauty, and so on—are always being hitched up to the sale of things.

Squeak:  That’s why some artists back off from that. Because this elusive thing, beauty, has been commodified and made available on cereal boxes. But I am interested in beauty.

RW:  I remember something you said from an earlier conversation, “I’m an advocate of the unwatched life.”

Squeak:  Yes.

RW:  It seems to me this is relevant and also what you said about the necessity of having time. If a person can take time perhaps some of the unwatched parts of life may begin to appear. They don’t have a loud voice. And there’s our fast-paced life, surfaces all charged up...

Squeak:  It’s just like living with an alcoholic. You’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s all melodrama. The alcohol comes home and you’re supposed to ignore it. There’s this secrecy and melodrama and blow-ups in the family. Now the whole world is like that. Since I grew up in that, I’m not all that interested in promoting that.

When it’s all melodrama people aren’t sure of what they feel. They’re addicted to different things and that’s a way not to feel anything. This way of being in the world prevents people from accessing their own feelings and how they address their own feelings. So when things are really scary or more violent, or when they are really disgusting—people know negative feelings, but they don’t know the subtle variance of just simple pleasures. How color affects them, or something like that.

RW:  This competitive, speeded-up culture puts me in a relationship with myself that mirrors the outer situation. I’m demanding of myself, impatient, judgmental and tense. This may touch on the subject of happiness, which has been appearing in your work. Certainly the culture tells us all kinds of things we need in order to be happy.

Squeak:  When we were teenagers we weren’t targeted as an audience that could buy things. Branding wasn’t as dominant as it is now. Now people are learning from very early on—even from kindergarten—that there are certain things that will make them happy if they would just acquire them. It’s very specific. Do this thing then this will happen to you. But then it doesn’t happen, or it’s not sustaining. It wears out. Or people don’t change in how they treat you. So then there’s disappointment, and people start to be perpetually disappointed.

If people don’t learn that happiness isn’t like a goal, that it comes and goes, that the only way to have it is to actually have the reverse of it as well, If they don’t learn to live with that and also to deal with the fears, the idea of dying and the idea that nothing lasts forever, unless all of these things are realized somehow, then happiness isn’t really possible.

RW:  I don’t think we’re going to see that message sent to us over the television. It won’t sell product.

Squeak:  They’ll figure out a way, if they can.

RW:  I just saw an ad on the side of a bus in big block letters. “Randon Acts of Crunciness.” Tthat’s cute, but, okay, what is that? That statement references the bumper sticker we used to see around the Bay Area in years past, “Commit randon acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The ad is all about tapping into those associations, ideals etc. to sell the product. It’s sophisticated. The advertisers are more sophisticated than the artists.

Squeak:  Way more. And artists, some artists, are trying to use strategies used by advertisers. Some of them are very successful at it and some aren’t. The advertisers are much better at it. Advertisers harvest and mine from the fine arts like crazy. Look at GAP ads, or if you look at TV commercials, how many of them are of young people appearing in lofts riding a bicycle around a huge open space with maybe a few easels and some paintings, being an artist or a free-spirit—whatever that is—you know, making up your own life, your own way of seeing. That’s now a way to sell stuff.

RW:  It just makes clear how difficult the situation is for an artist who wants to be, let’s say sincere. To be sincere is a difficult thing to do.

Squeak:  It’s the only way anyone has an access to authenticity. The other thing is that people would like to be their real selves, whatever that is. It seems to me that’s sort of our job, as artists—to try to be our authentic selves, really ourselves, unwatched, just as we are.

Now, because of video, of web-cams and all these ways of surveillance and public displays like karaoke, it’s hard for people, especially for young people to think they could actually be who they think they are.

RW:  A movie like Magnolia has a kernal of hopefulness in it. But, to me, it also shows how you can’t say anything like that among the younger people without wrapping it in a lot of fairly difficult stuff.

Carnwath:  It’s a sweet film. It also points out this need for something greater outside of oneself.

RW:  I just met an interesting man yesterday, Eli Leon. He’s collected thousands of African-American quilts, which he calls, “improvisational quilts.” It opened a window into a world that nobody knows about outside of many people in the African-American community. It hasn’t come up on the screen of corporate America, the art-world or the media. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful some of these quilts are. [note: since the interview considerable attention has been focused on such African American quilts and quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama]

Squeak:  Yes. We have institutionalized racism. Did you see that show at the Berkeley Art Museum? Larry Rinder goes out seeking these less recognized expressions of beauty made by the hand. He had a show of quilts about two years ago mostly made by local women here. I forget their names. They published a catalog. And then he brought in the Mabuti women, a nomadic tribe in Africa. That was a great show. The women made these maps. [Carnwath gets a book] Look at this stuff. I just love these.

I think part of the reason it hasn’t gotten more attention is that it’s not slick. It’s obviously hand-made and it’s not made by white people. For the most part, I think it’s our institutionalized racism.

RW:  I was touched seeing these quilts, seeing into this world. Part of it has to do with the fact that this world exists untouched by the advertising agencies and all that. And some of the quilts are as beautiful as any abstract expressionist painting I’ve ever seen. One woman’s work is really sublime. She insists on remaining anonymous. She says her work is from God.

Squeak:  She’s right. It does come from God, or whatever is outside of ourselves. It’s our responsibility to protect that gift. I’m not sure a lot of artists realize that this is a gift we’ve been given.

I actually think there are a bunch of different kinds of artists. The artworld, like everything else, is fragmented. There are people who believe that what’s provable in science is the only reality. Miracles can’t happen. If someone has cancer, it’s only science that’s going to cure them, nothing else. If science doesn’t work, then they have to die.

I think science is important, but I think that there’s also something else. This woman who won’t give her name is guarding that “something else.”

RW:  The idea that there is only one level is from science, but this is changing, don’t you think?—because with the quantum world, science has lost its certainty.

Squeak:  The good scientists know that. A good doctor who deals with horrible cancer cases knows that the patient has to have his or her own will, fight, whatever. The really good doctors can’t say, “It’s hopeless,” because they don’t really know. They can only say, there’s this, this, and this, and then there’s the unknown.

The other thing is that a lot of artists get into a trap with dealers and galleries where they think the gallery is doing them a favor. So they owe the gallery and have to do what the gallery says, even if it goes against their core. They’re worried the gallery will drop them. But my feeling is “too bad.” We need to protect the work. We need to demand what we think needs to happen to the work. And the galleries wouldn’t exist without our work.

RW:  What you’ve just said reminds me of a thought I had recently about you. I suddenly thought of you as a warrior.

Squeak: [laughs] Yes. I do feel that way. An angry warrior.

RW:  It takes a warrior, in a way.

Squeak:  Oh, yes. Absolutely. You have to be. And I actually like the anger. It’s channeled, so it works fine. I love my anger. It comes out in the work in the way certain marks get made and the kind of yelling that happens in some of the work. I actually like the touch of that a lot. For me it’s a powerful force that probably makes me able to be this warrior.

RW:  If someone is going to represent the kind of world of which you speak, a world that needs to be protected, that’s vulnerable, in a way, maybe only a warrior could undertake that in this culture.

Squeak:  I think that’s probably true.

RW:  In talking with you and looking at your paintings I see the entry into what has to be called philosophy.

Squeak:  I think of painting as a philosophical enterprise. I do. It has a lot to do with the idea that this is a received reality, that which occurs on the canvas. It can be illusionistic or allude to something in a sensate way through color and texture, but it’s a reality that we all believe in. That fascinates me, and that’s why all kinds of marks, why language is important to put in the paintings—colors, marks, recognizable images; all these different things go into the painting because they are part of that whole fabric of reality that exists on the surface of a thin piece of fabric.

RW:  Can it be said that we need philosophy in our lives?

Squeak:  Oh yes, we definitely do.

RW:  And it’s hard to find, I think—especially in philosophy departments.

Squeak:  Because it’s gotten like everything—I was going to say, “fetishized.” See, I don’t think we need to use all those big words like “epistemology” and “ontology.” Ontology. Isn’t that the “being” one?

RW:  Right.

Squeak:  Yes. And epistemology is “what we know.” Why can’t we just say, it’s about being and knowledge? That’s what I mean about it being fetishized. All this stuff has been fetishized so that it doesn’t roll off our tongues. I love the idea that that word ontology is about being. I like knowing that, but for me it’s like a foreign language. It’s not the language of being.

You know the way artists like to show their hand, show how good they are at something? That’s so unnecessary. We don’t need to show how good we are at something. We need to forget that, actually.

If we try to show how good we are at something, then that’s the only thing anybody sees. It becomes just posing again. So what we really need to show is what we know. And how well we know it. And also be generous with what we know. That is, share it so that it can be received by other people.

RW:  That is so well said.

Squeak:  When I don’t get interrupted I think about this stuff while I’m painting. I realize that painting by itself, just the act of painting—for instance, drips are like sex to me. They’re a signifier of that kind of life-force. And then scarred surfaces are a signifier of what the body goes through to exist here. And beauty. Old beauty and new beauty. Pristine passages in the canvas vs. crusty old passages. It’s how we live in the world. So all these kinds of ways that the paint can be handled are like signifiers of daily life. I love it that paint can do that.

RW:  I think many people will find a lot of what you’ve been saying encouraging, and I think that’s important.

Squeak:  I would want whatever I’m working on to encourage people to continue, encourage them to actually trust themselves and to trust what they perceive so they can figure out where they are themselves. It’s not very easy. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering thing. It will be a subtle epiphany.    


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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